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Buywell Just Classical 

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [09:20], Nocturnes: 1. Nuages [06:54], 2. Fêtes [05:58], Images [35:12]
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, December 1961 (Prélude, Nocturnes), London 1963 (Images). ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 8472 [58:02]

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The real problem, to take a coldly commercial view, is that BMG not long ago issued a CD, which I reviewed, in which the Boston Symphony Orchestra under another great interpreter of French music, Charles Munch, play exactly the same programme plus “La mer”, with a total timing of 79:22. If you’re building up a collection and are looking for a cheap way of getting your basic orchestral Debussy, you could hardly do better than that.

However, let us suppose that some of my readers have “La mer” but not the other pieces and would therefore happily consider the Monteux disc if there were reasons to prefer the performances. Let me also discuss the interpretations for the benefit of those who are out to collect vintage readings and are not concerned by gaps or duplications.

During his final period with the LSO Monteux recorded for Decca, Philips and Westminster; now that the first two come under Universal Classics it has been possible to bring together parts of a 1961 Decca record including the Prélude and the first two Nocturnes – the original “other side” had Ravel’s Pavane and Rhapsodie espagnole, now reissued by Eloquence with Monteux’s celebrated Daphnis – and a 1963 Philips disc which coupled the complete Images with orchestral movements from Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien.

In 1963 Monteux was 88 - he died the following year - and I feel that, rather as happened with our own Sir Adrian Boult, everyone loved him so much that they didn’t notice that he was not always able to capture the verve and the tension which had rarely failed him throughout the larger part of his career. The Images are a case in point. The orchestra play beautifully but the music often hangs fire. The comparison with Munch is startling, but let me give a few timings. I will explain what the other performances mentioned are doing here in due course.

IMAGES Gigues Ibéria   Rondes de printemps
Monteux, 1963  07:18   20:14  07:58
Munch   06:30   19:28 07:15
Celibidache, Turin 1969 08:12 22:50 07:41*
Gui, Rome 1962  08:22  21:26 07:46

*timing includes a few seconds of applause

These timings differ slightly from those in the booklets - and reproduced in the heading above - since according to my computer those timings are wrong; mostly a matter of seconds but a discrepancy of about 7 minutes in the case of Munch’s Ibéria.

Munch was a quite different kind of Debussy conductor, of course. No one has succeeded better than he in causing great euphoric washes of sound to well out from the orchestra, in giving a coursing vitality to the quicker pieces, in embracing the slower movements with rich timbres and subtle nuances. It would be possible to feel, though, that his concentration on – or exaltation of – certain aspects of Debussy leave other aspects unsaid. Nobody in my experience has shown such an understanding of Debussy’s lights and shadows as Sergiu Celibidache. He can galvanize the orchestra into euphoric flights no less thrilling than Munch’s, yet he can suddenly still the turmoil and reveal dark happenings below the surface. The problem is that, at present, DG have issued a Stuttgart disc containing La mer, Nocturnes (all three) and just Ibéria from the Images while EMI have a mixed Munich recital including a further Ibéria. The Turin performance of the complete Images may have been issued in bootleg form in the days of LP or very early CD but even if you could get it these pirated issues had very lacklustre sound. I do hope somebody will issue officially some of Celibidache’s RAI legacy which is very extensive, covering about twenty years of his career and perhaps marking the apogee of his interpretative powers. As you can see, his tempi were not yet markedly slower than those of other conductors. His Stuttgart and Munich periods may offer better recordings but his art was by then increasingly heading towards self-parody.

I had originally intended to listen to the Gui again without actually mentioning it in the review, since the prospect of its ever being made available is fairly remote. But it does have a bearing on the argument, for both Monteux and Gui were before all else “faithful” interpreters rather than imaginative re-creators like Munch and Celibidache, yet Gui’s Italianate warmth ensures that the performances, though slowish, do not sag as Monteux’s do. I wonder if an earlier Monteux version, or a live one, exists?

Two years earlier Monteux was in much finer form. As well as the expected orchestral refinement there is the overall sweep lacking in 1963, the clouds passing steadily overhead and the Fêtes celebrated with tingling vitality. This time it is Monteux who is swifter:

NOCTURNES Nuages Fêtes
Monteux 06:53   06:06
Munch 07:24  06:45

This all goes to show that tempo has little to do with it, for it is still Munch who creates the more sensual, colouristic display, leading the ear onward with his inspired control of nuance. Or rather, perhaps it shows that, if a relatively literal style of interpretation is adopted, then it is better for tempi not to be too slow if the music is not to hang fire as it does in Monteux’s Images. If forced to choose, I think I would still opt for Munch, for there is such a charisma, such a sense of high and palmy living exuded by his Boston recordings, or at least those of French music, that makes them irresistible. But I am glad to have these refreshingly direct Monteux alternatives.

Lastly, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune:

Monteux 09:27
Munch  09:06
Gui   09:52

Monteux’s reading evokes the cool, classical world of the faun; Munch takes his cue from Mallarmé’s erotic poem and evokes naked passions. Gui, with the close collaboration of an outstanding - if too closely-miked - flautist, seems to have all the time in the world to unfold a reading that drips Roman decadence. After all, Fellini had shot “La dolce vita” only two years earlier! Incidentally, if anyone ever does issue these Gui performances, I hope they will attempt to find out who this flautist was, since it could very well be the much-missed Severino Gazzelloni, who played first flute in the RAI’s Rome orchestra for many years, even after he had embarked on a solo career as one of the world’s top flautists.

As I said at the beginning, this is a disc for Monteux admirers and collectors of vintage performances. They will of course find numerous felicities in Monteux’s handling of the Images even if the performances do not quite hang together; I see that many distinguished critics do not agree with me over this anyway. For the general collector, in order to compete with the Munch compilation, something else needed to be added. The Saint Sébastian music would presumably have been too long and the original Ravel couplings have been used elsewhere. Looking at alternative Images from the Decca/Philips stable, I see that one by Ataulfo Argenta (Decca) was well considered in its day, but it is in mono only. I wonder if Eloquence might not have done better to turn to the Ansermet performances. That way we could have had all three Nocturnes. He also recorded several other short pieces that might have been slipped in, providing a motive to buy this disc as well as the Munch, rather than one or the other.

The booklet notes are good, but I have to pick up Raymond Tuttle on a point of fact that commentators from outside the British Isles - I presume he is Australian - often get wrong. Speaking of Gigues he says “… and when the oboe d’amore introduces the jig theme – a fragment from the Scots folk song ‘The Keel Row’ – …”. Apart from the fact that “The Keel Row” is Northumbrian, whatever Debussy might have supposed, the theme introduced by the oboe d’amore is Debussy’s own; “The Keel Row” merely provides the four-note motive – its lower-note flattened to outline Debussy’s favourite whole-tone scale – which is heard at the opening and pervades the whole piece.

Christopher Howell


Buywell Just Classical 




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